I like to read. I’ve read lots of books about church history and moments when it seemed like God was working in a special way. It often seems that these moments all happened long ago. This week I was reminded that is not always the case.
This past week I had the opportunity to reconnect with my friend Erion for the first time since we spoke together at Palm Beach Atlantic university.
Erion is one of my heroes. Together with his wife Melodie and his two partners in leadership, Lorena and Lucy, Erion has been at the forefront of what can only be described as a remarkable movement of young people in Albania.
According to the 2011 census, Albania has a population of 0.14% Christians who are not Catholic or Orthodox. Erion believes that in total there might be 30 healthy protestant churches in the whole country. By far the majority (over 56%) religion is Islam.
As I sat down with Erion this week, I was challenged by the reality he was describing.
In this country where by far the majority of people have no Christian history, God is at work in a way that sounds a lot like the early church. A movement that has primarily started amongst young people is seeing hundreds of people come to faith and impacting whole cities and towns.
Erion estimates that over 500 young people have come to faith over the last 8 years, and most of them have become members of a team who are serving their city in lots of different ways. Each summer they run numbers of camps and day trips for local young people. They spend hours cleaning streets. They put on highly professional musicals that tour the country. They run festivals that build bridges in highly divided communities. Over the last 12 months 100 of them have been taking turns to travel the 2 1/2 hours to the massive refugee camp on the Greek/Macedonian border and simply serving there. They do so much more than turn up at a church on a Sunday morning.
Since I last met with him, Erion had left his hometown because the size and competence of the team had grown to a point where life was just too easy. He wanted to plant a church in a neighbouring town where the team had been running festivals and day trips for a few years. His church started 12 months ago with four young men. Now that church averages between 90 and 120 people each Sunday.
Leeanne and I sat down with Erion for a couple of hours on Monday night. Catching up with him this time was different, because I am now a pastor and I am continually wrestling with how to build a church that is healthy and growing.
The next morning I sat down with my journal and tried to capture what I had heard from him. I named 16 different elements that seemed to be part of the remarkable growth of the church in Albania. Among these 16 things there was one big thing that stood out.
Here in Canada I am struck how people look for a church they can fit into their lives. “Church” means a “service” that happens on a Sunday morning, and more than half of people don’t even make it to that every week. The two determining factors of people’s choice of church is whether they enjoy it and whether it “fits” with the rest of their lives. Our jobs, our kids recreation and our feelings all set a stronger agenda for our lives than our engagement with the church.
The church Erion leads in Albania is much more than a Sunday “service”. The church in Albania is a whole social system where everyone can find a role. Erion describes it as a “family” who spend long hours serving together in lots of different ways. It was instructive to hear Erion describe a moment when it became clear that the team had grown to a point where it was becoming too easy. His response wasn’t to celebrate, but to expand the vision so more people could find their place.
Throughout the history of the church, whenever you see it exploding, it is a whole social system that invites people into a new family and a new way of life. A healthy church doesn’t fit into business as usual… it sets an agenda that changes every aspect of life.
I actually think this whole social system producing radically changed life is exactly what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said:
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)
In a majority Muslim country with a broken economy, hundreds of young people are working together to transform their cities and towns. Most of them are living well below the poverty line.
Part of Erion’s burden is that he has many more leaders ready to plant churches and change their country than they can possibly afford to support financially. Most of the members of the churches are either unemployed or still at school. Just like the Apostle Paul challenged the Corinthians to support their brothers and sisters in the church in Jerusalem, Erion is hoping to challenge Christians in the West to support some of these amazing young leaders.
It was a joy to introduce Erion to students at my Alma Mater, Taylor Seminary, on Tuesday. I think the students were genuinely moved as they heard the story of the way that Jesus is moving.
Here in the West, we pay people thousands of dollars to write books and speak at seminars on how to grow the church in ways other than just pinching people from other churches. Perhaps we should be visiting places like Albania where it is actually happening.